Chuck Renslow And His Leather Legacy

On June 29, 2017, the international Leather and BDSM communities received the sad news about the passing of Chuck Renslow. He was 87 years old. Renslow was an artist, an activist, a businessman, and all-around icon for not only Leathermen and kinksters but for the queer community at large— especially in his native Chicago. Throughout his life, he owned and/or operated more than 20 businesses, most of which catered to GLBTQ people. For the Leather/BDSM family, some of his most emblematic endeavors included the Leather Archives and Museum, the bathhouse Man’s Country, and The Gold Coast, which was the first gay Leather bar in Chicago as well as in the entire country. Gold Coast first came into existence in the ‘50’s as a safe meeting place for guys who identified as Leathermen. Known originally as The Gold Coast Show Lounge, the “Show Lounge” part was dropped when Renslow became one of the owners. That was in 1960. For reasons of safety, the venue was called “a biker bar”, and there wasn’t even a sign on the door to indicate that it was a bar at all. The Gold Coast, which would eventually close in 1987, was the nucleus of perhaps Renslow’s most enduring legacy: International Mr. Leather Weekend. As an activist, Renslow was honored with dozens of other awards and recognitions, and was inducted into the the Chicago LGBT Hall of Fame in 1991. He received The Leather Journal’s lifetime achievement award and a Centurion Award as Leatherman of the Century. Realizing the importance of being politically active, Renslow served on the board of directors of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force and was a U.S. representative to what was known then as the International Lesbian and Gay Association. And, it’s no exaggeration to say that all these accomplishments are just scratching the surface of Renslow’s life. It was a life of breaking barriers and meeting challenges, complete with soaring highs and crippling lows. For this man, it was about getting things done— even if it had to be done the hard way.

Chuck Renslow was born in 1929. At the time he was coming of age, gay sex was not only stigmatized but also illegal in his home state of Illinois. From the very beginning, Renslow was unapologetic about being gay and about expressing his carnal desires. It was that defiant personality that would likely propel all of his creative, social, and philanthropic endeavors for decades to come. He was the subject of an extensive (414 pages) biography, Leatherman: The Legend of Chuck Renslow, written by Chicago-area movers and shakers Tracy Baim and Owen Keehnen. This fascinating book is not just a paint-by-numbers bio or a Wikipedia-style fact sheet. More than just telling us Renslow’s story, the authors expertly manage to transport us back to the social and political environments that Renslow and his queer contemporaries lived in throughout the decades. We read about the good, the bad, and the ugly. The authors also pepper the story of Renslow’s life with many anecdotes and memories from people who were in the scene through those decades. Baim and Keehnen aren’t shy about throwing in some occasional celebrity gossip (Which famous people were spotted at Man’s Country?). Best of all, the subject himself extensively participated in the book. Leatherman details Renslow’s youth, when he was restless both sexually and professionally. One of his earliest forays was into male erotic art. He was a photographer and the founder of Kris Studios in 1950. As detailed in a chapter called “Love at First Sight”, it was in this era that he met his longtime lover Dom Orejudos, AKA Etienne, whose own vision of masculine beauty was an artistic complement to the notorious erotic drawings of Tom of Finland. In one of infinite priceless anecdotes, we learn of how Orejudos taught Renslow how to get “the perfect butt shot”. (It’s also worth noting at this time that there there is another book somewhere in existence, called KRIS – The Physique Photography of Chuck Renslow. Good luck finding a copy of that!) Dealing in the beefcake trade was dangerous in the 1950’s, since the publishings were always at risk of postal interrogations in search of “obscene” material— even thought he photography was tame by today’s “anything-goes” standards— but certainly no less sexy.

Leatherman the book continues the story of Renslow’s life all the way until 2011. For anyone seriously interested in Leather/BDSM history and GLBTQ history at large, it’s a must-read. It is not until about one quarter through the book, in fact, before we even learn of the “Mr. Gold Coast Contest”. That would be in 1973, and the contest would be the predecessor to International Mr. Leather (IML) in 1979. To this day, Renslow’s spiritual sons who have competed at IML through the generations universally state how they keep their close relationships with their classmates for life. One of the men who competed at IML was 39-year old Miguel Torres, who is Mr. Chicago Leather 2014. Torres tells me:

I had the honor of working closely with Chuck and Ron when producing the Eagle Rises party in 2014. Luis Tipantasig and I wanted to hold a party inside Man’s Country, where the original Eagle bar and Bistro Too once stood. It was a benefit for The Leather Archives and Museum. In our weekly meetings with Chuck, we would discuss how to overcome all the legal hurdles of throwing a party with alcohol inside a bathhouse and no liquor license. In one of those meetings, he just stopped us and said “Let’s just throw the damn party and pay the fines later!”, to which Ron immediately added “No, no, no, don’t listen to Chuck! We’ll sort this out legally”. And this moment embodies a big part of who Chuck Renslow was. He just wanted to provide a space where gay men could enjoy themselves and be with others. He had to often sidestep the law or at least find thin legal loopholes to provide those spaces, especially back in the 50s, 60s and 70s.

Chuck loved cookies very much, especially the kind that comes in tin cans. He always had a can of cookies sitting in his living room table and always offered me some when I went to visit. One time I was invited to his birthday party, and I got him the best possible cookies I could find as his birthday present. He used to always sit on his tall leather chair, which resembled a leather throne. Once I went to hug him and give him his present, he would (as he did every time I saw him) grab my ass and my arm and say “Now that I have a handsome man next to me, I’m not letting go!”— and when I give him a kiss, he’d say “You know that’s not how I want my kisses”, so I will kiss him harder and he would always try to stick his tongue in, it always made me smile. Every time we took pictures together, he would always be grabbing my ass. Just look at pictures of him with others and notice his hands are always missing. I will miss that dirty old man so much!

David Bailey, AKA “Tigger”, is Mr. New Jersey Leather 2016 and was the last International Mr. Leather to be by announced by Renslow himself. (Bailey would pass the IML sash to Ralph Bruneau in 2017.) Bailey recalls:

I remember these very clear moments with Chuck: After the MC’s announced the 2nd and 1st runners up for IML 2016, I can still feel the impact as they announced that Chuck Renslow himself would take the stage personally to announce the winner: an honor he reserved for himself every year. It was palpable that we were in the presence of a man whose life work had so greatly effected us all. Chuck himself would announce the successor. When he called my name, as you can imagine, it took a few moments to sink in. After all, I was the oldest to win IML to that point (at 51) and I didn’t have a perfect body. But Chuck made it clear to us all— contestants, judges, volunteers— that he looked for the best inside all of us. He looked in our hearts. It’s overwhelming now, as I look back, that I’ll be the last IML to have that honor: the honor of hearing him call my name, and the honor of hearing him welcome me into a brotherhood that has evolved as our community has to include a variety of Leatherman who share the same singular opportunity to be of service on an international scale. The next night I got to sit next to Chuck for a private dinner for the podium winners and our partners. He was gracious and kind— and blunt, like a man who had long outgrown the need to dance around any topic. He made his expectations clear: You have no obligation except to bring no shame to the legacy, and to come back next year to judge. He said, “What you do is entirely up to you. You can try to attend every event and champion every cause, or you can do nothing. It’s entirely up to you. You will be asked to go everywhere and do everything. And let me be clear, it’s OK to ask for money. If they want you to travel a long distance, it’s OK to ask them to help cover the expense. You’re not a bank.” Wow! I couldn’t believe he actually said that. I think I fell in love with him a bit more: He was mentor, protector and Dad all rolled into one. At the same time he looked out for us, he gave us complete freedom. Wow! That’s the courage that blazes new trails: the courage to let people succeed, and to fail, and to try again. His leadership was empowering, inspiring, and scary as hell. But it made you want to succeed, and to make him proud: to be your very best, and to be the person they saw in your heart. Yes, he changed my life. He gave life and meaning and value to the person I was on the inside. He gave me my voice. And for the rest of my days, I’ll use it to make him proud. He believed in every one of us who competed at IML, and I will cherish that unconditional validation. As Leatherman, kinksters, outsiders, and rebels, that type of validation is rare and life-changing. Chuck Renslow made a difference because he believed in us.

I myself had the pleasure of meeting Renslow several times, but the most memorable time was in Chicago in 2012. I was Mr. Rawhide NYC 2011, and sadly, I’d be the last to hold that title. The iconic New York City bar would close within a year, and it was only one of many Leather bars to close over the past ten years throughout the country. I was in Chicago for a photo shoot, and we used Man’s Country as the setting for some authentic “atmosphere”. Even though it was only early afternoon, the moans and groans of pleasure from inside the club could be heard from the outside stairwell. In a moment of perfect timing, Renslow had just driven up to the club. It showed that he was still very much “hands-on” in the daily workings of his businesses. (Retirement? Bitch, please!) It was a great pleasure to spend time with Chuck in his native setting, away from the fabulous chaos of a large Leather event. Despite his larger-than-life reputation, Renslow was absolutely welcoming and down-to-earth. He was also not the image that most people would have in their heads when they think of a man in his 80’s. Even as an octogenarian, Renslow had a youthful energy that could rival any 20-something.

The late Michael Skiff was the director of the movie Kink Crusaders, a documentary about IML. Back in 2011, he told me during an interview, “He inspires me in the way that he holds his head up as a Leatherman, without the stigma of shame, in his civic and political activities. He has directly shaped aspects of gay civil rights in Chicago during his lifetime. He is no saint, but he is a brave man.”

The Leather and BDSM worlds are full of a seemingly infinite number of men and women who tirelessly use their talents for the good of their own community (and beyond) on a daily basis. We have many unsung heroes. But even so, it would be hard to argue that Chuck Renslow was as close to peerless as it gets. Biology made him gay, and his own sexual preferences made him a Leatherman. But it was his work ethic, drive, and rebellious nature that made him a true icon. For the Leather nation, these are gonna be BIG boots to fill…

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